An organization that tracks the Ku Klux Klan claims the hate group has an active chapter in Rutland.
Nobody in Rutland, though, seems to have heard anything about it.
The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which became famous for successfully bringing lawsuits against hate groups whose members commit violent crimes, publishes a list of active hate groups across the nation each year.
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The list of groups operating in 2006, released this spring, has two entries for Vermont. Rutland and Hardwick, according to the SPLC, are home to chapters of the Brotherhood of Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.
Mark Potok, who runs the center’s Intelligence Project, said each entry on this list is an organization that was active during 2006. “Activity,” he said, must go beyond merely running a Web site — the group must be holding rallies, distributing leaflets or at the very least be open to new members.
The Rutland chapter was listed with a post office box as an address in a now-defunct Web page for the Brotherhood of Klans Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, according to Potok. The URL provided by Potok redirects to a different Web site for the same group with no listings of any chapters in Vermont.
Potok said the changes to the Web site were likely because of a reorganization of the Brotherhood of Klans following the death of its founder. He provided the Herald with archived copies of the Web page, which listed the Vermont chapter among 26 others.
The current Brotherhood of Klans Web site lacks such listings, but a section promises they are coming soon.
An active chapter may not have any members in its given location. Two years ago, the SPLC listed a chapter in Castleton after a poster on a racist Web site gave a Bomoseen post office box as a contact address for people interested in joining the Klan. The individual gave his location as New Hampshire.
Potok said hate groups having mailing addresses away from their physical locations is common.
“We have a similar situation here with the Aryan Nations, a more significant group,” he said.
Potok said the SPLC does not attempt to confirm the validity of each listing.
“When a group claims chapters in a given place, we list them unless we have a reason to believe it is false,” he said. “Our listings say that at some point in calendar year 2006, this group was active.”
But how active?
Detective Sgt. Kevin Stevens of the Rutland City Police said the first he heard of the supposed Klan chapter was when a reporter contacted him about this story. He said he doubted such a group operated in Rutland, saying militant groups like the Klan frequently have more active existences on paper than in real life.
“There’s the Green Mountain Militia, there’s four or five other entities that claim they have chapters everywhere,” he said. “There’s nothing cast in stone.”
Stevens said there had not been any bias crimes in the city recently — the SPLC’s Web site did not list such crimes anywhere in the state for 2007 or 2006, with one in Rutland in 2005.
“We’d have had some intel, we’d have some names of people if they were here,” Stevens said.
The news was greeted with shock by Alis Headlam, steering committee chairwoman for the Multiracial Alliance of the Rutland Area, a group that does racial sensitivity workshops and advocates on behalf of people who feel discriminated against.
Headlam said she had never heard of a Klan chapter operating in Rutland.
“That doesn’t mean it’s not here,” she said. “It could be very, very underground.”
Headlam said there are problems with racism in the area, but she has not seen any of the organized variety.
“In schools, sometimes parents feel there is an issue with a particular teacher or administrator, sometimes housing, but nothing really big,” she said. “There are definitely issues in Rutland, but with my organization they don’t surface in any critical way.”
Paul Holstein, media coordinator for the regional office of the FBI in Albany, said the bureau could not comment on whether it is investigating groups or even what groups it is aware of because of concerns about protecting its intelligence-gathering ability.
A search of national and regional racist Web sites turned up posters who said they lived in Vermont, but with no specific references to organizations in Rutland, Hardwick or anywhere else in the state.
Hardwick Police Chief James Dziobek likewise said he had not heard anything about the alleged chapter in his town, and he had never seen any bias crimes in the area.
“I haven’t heard of any cross-burnings or sheet-walkings,” he said. “The only thing that’s even close that comes to mind was the Irasburg incident 30 or 40 years ago.”
Dziobek referred to an incident in 1968 in which an African-American minister who had recently moved to Irasburg was shot at and otherwise harassed. The events were the inspiration for the Howard Mosher novel and Jay Craven film, “Stranger in the Kingdom.”
“I don’t know if that had a KKK undertone,” he said. “I have not seen anything that would lead me to believe there is anyone around here doing stuff like that.”
Potok countered that just because the Klan, which refers to itself as the “invisible army,” can’t be seen, that does not mean it isn’t here.
“Very frequently, authorities in a given community are surprised to find a hate group operating in their town or operating a mailbox, especially if it turns out to be a drop box,” he said. “Especially in a state like Vermont, where the Klan is not very popular, you won’t see your local Klan in public. Just because local police and local anti-racism groups don’t know about it does not make it not true.”
The original Ku Klux Klan was a group of Confederate Civil War veterans who organized to intimidate recently freed Southern blacks. The group has gone through periodic revivals and today several independent organizations use the name.
Vermont has had a Klan presence in the past, most notably during the height of the group’s power in the 1920s.